GCUC UK: What Comes Next, And What’s The Future Of Flexible Space?

This week, GCUC UK brought some of the flexible space industry’s brightest minds together, virtually speaking, to discuss what comes after COVID-19.
  • GCUC UK brought some of the flexible space industry’s brightest minds together, virtually speaking, to discuss what comes after COVID-19.
  • Panelists believe that regional and rural coworking spaces will likely flourish in the post-pandemic world. 
  • Wellness measures and particularly air quality will become “the new battleground”. 

GCUC UK brought some of the flexible space industry’s brightest minds together, virtually speaking, to discuss what comes after COVID-19.

GCUC’s Tim Devitt and Liz Elam set the scene for an all-star cast featuring proptech expert Antony Slumbers, Natasha Guerra from Runway East, Seb Royle of PLATF9RM, Jonathan Weinbrenn from BE.Spoke and Chris Davies of Uncommon.

Here are the highlights from the online discussion.

Regional and Rural Spaces Will Flourish

The immediate short-term challenges that COVID-19 is presenting are prompting new ways of thinking, and generating innovative solutions that could present long-term benefits to our sector.

“Short term, people are questioning whether hot desking and the office is dead,” said Guerra. “But longer term, when we come out of this, I think we, and local spaces in particular, will benefit.”

The health crisis is pushing people to think about how they can travel safely to their place of work once restrictions are lifted. In London for instance, it will be incredibly difficult to use public transport, especially the underground, while practising physical distancing.

The same goes for offices, where many spaces are communal or densely populated – such as lifts, cafe and kitchen areas, and of course open coworking.

One outcome is an expected surge in demand for regional, rural, and suburban flexible spaces. This trend was already emerging, particularly in some parts of the US and Europe, where franchising models are enabling people with long commutes to find space closer to home.

Now the health crisis is accelerating this trend. Rural and suburban spaces will enable companies to distribute their workers so they can continue collaborating safely, without the density concerns associated with using public transport, city centre congestion, or bringing entire teams into a single office all at once.

“Whilst coworking is taking a hit, there is still a desire for people to come back together again and be part of a community,” added Royle. “Our coworking member base has remained robust and they’re keen to come back.”

For Royle, the office certainly isn’t dead. “We’re human, we’re pack animals by nature, and we’ll all come back together again when the fear goes away.”

Close to Home, But Not At Home

Being forced to work from home has shown people that it’s possible. Yet while many people will happily go back to their offices and coworking communities, there is also the realisation that working closer to home – but not necessarily at home – is more beneficial.

“It’s speeding up a lot of trends that were already there,” said Davies. “We’re seeing that people want to work closer to home, which is linked to wellbeing.”

Having the opportunity to reduce the daily commute without compromising on a quality place of work offers multiple health benefits, and this is now a top priority.

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“It’s in our interest to create really good environmental conditions,” noted Slumbers, which raised the question, how can operators instil confidence in their members to come back to their spaces?

For Royle, it’s all about communication. “We have to implement a hygiene strategy, but it’s also about communicating with the membership and making them feel comfortable, and making sure our own team is safe and comfortable too.”

PLATF9RM is already implementing measures to re-open, by installing hand sanitisers throughout the space, rethinking the layout to enable physical distancing, and reducing capacity in shared space. They are also using an app by OfficeRnD to enable members to book seats at specific times, which reduces the risk of over-subscribing and enables occupancy to be managed safely.

Weinbrenn believes that the need for trust will prompt a new wave of safety standards.

“Clients need to believe that you can deliver. It’s about more than just telling them what you’re doing; you need to demonstrate it in a way that’s tangible,” for example through certification.

Air Quality: “The new battleground”

One of the numerous measures Guerra is implementing at Runway East is improving air flow and air quality throughout the space.

For Davies, wellness measures and particularly air quality will become “the new battleground”. Uncommon is currently seeking WELL building certification on a new location, and Davies believes that air quality is so important, there will come a time when corporate clients won’t be permitted to occupy a space unless the air quality reaches a certain standard.

“Initially this requirement was perhaps 5-10 years away, now it has been turbo charged.”

Ultimately, as Slumbers noted, this forms part of a wider focus on wellbeing, which has now been pushed to the top of the priority list.

For businesses, their choice of workplace will come down to which space they perceive is better – and for now, better means healthiest.

Davies noted that this change was already happening, and COVID-19 has shown people that while they can work from home, or from anywhere, they still need a certain standard of workplace.

“It’s accelerating the realisation that people want a better place to work, and that’s why people still want to go back to the office. You can’t do a lot of things that businesses need to do from your home, it just doesn’t work.

“Our challenge is to provide better space. They want better space that keeps them healthy and safe – and that has moved up the rankings.”

Even while the health crisis will inevitably lead to consolidation in the flexible space market, it won’t dampen competition. Traditional real estate is continuing to face up to demands from occupiers for flexible, service-led environments, and the current situation is forcing their hand; landlords recognise the demand for flexible space, they will adapt to survive, and they are well-funded to make it happen.

But this in itself presents opportunities. The operational expertise, hospitality, and agility that flexible space operators can provide are all essential components for management agreements or partnerships with commercial real estate owners, which will pave the way for future growth within our sector.

“Longer term I believe that this situation will be a massive tipping point to drive more businesses to our segment,” added Weinbrenn. “There’s no question about it.”

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